More on Persian Christian literature

There have been a number of further posts in the NASCAS forum on the subject of Persian Christian literature, all of considerable interest.

Thomas A. Carlson writes:

At one time there was a larger corpus of Persian Christian materials.  In Middle Persian there were some psalms, translations from Syriac Christian authors (including Abraham of Nathpar and Abraham of Kashkar, both translated by Job the Persian), a liturgy (mentioned by John of Dalyatha in a letter), and a law-book by Ishobokht of Rewardashir apparently composed in Persian, but which only survives in Syriac translation.  

In Sogdian some has survived, including parts of the Psalms and New Testament, some saints’ lives, and some monastic literature, an overview of which is provided at the end of Baum & Winkler, The Church of the East: A Concise History (London, 2003), 168-170.  

Dr. Pritula’s excellent work only concerns materials translated into neo-Persian, that is, Persian written in (modified) Arabic script.  Of this, if I remember correctly (it has been a while since I’ve looked at this!), almost all that survives from before the Jesuit missions c.1600 is biblical, although more was at one time written in Persian, for example the lost original travel account of Rabban Sauma’s trip to Europe, which the editor/translator mentioned at the end of the account of Rabban Sauma’s voyage in the Syriac “History of Mar Yahballaha and of Rabban Sauma” (edited by Bedjan, translated into English by Budge, recently re-edited by Pier Giorgio Borbone).

For my own reference, and possible future use, I am keeping a list of known (including lost) works in Christian Persian, so if others know of additional works I am very happy to hear of them!

Sasha Treiger draws attention to an article on the Chronology of Translations of the Bible in the Encyclopedia Iranica.  First it lists translations into Middle Persian, or evidence that such exist:

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    • 4th century. Statement by John Chrysostom (Homily on John, in Migne, Patrologia Graecia LIX, col. 32) that doctrines of Christ had been translated into the languages of the Persians.
    • 5th century. Statement by Theodoret (Graecarum affect­ionum curatio IX.936, in Migne, PG LXXXIII, col. 1045c) that Persians regarded the Gospels as divine revelation.
    • 4th-6th centuries (?). Middle Persian translation from Syriac of Psalms 94-99, 119-136 (the “Pahlavi Psal­ter”); the extant manuscript contains canons written after ca. 550; Andreas-Barr, 1933.
    • ? centuries. Sogdian translations of the Gospels, Pauline epistles, and Psalms.
    • 9th century. Biblical quotations in the Zoroastrian text Škand-gumānīg wizār; Menasce, 1945, pp. 176ff., Asmussen and Paper, p. 5.

Then it continues with lists of translations of biblical texts into modern Persian.  This begins in the 13th century, is extensive and mainly from Syriac.

Further details appear in the next article, by Shaul Shaked, on Middle Persian Translations of the Bible:

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    • The only extant Middle Persian Bible version is represented by fragments of a translation of the Psalms found at the ruin of the Nestorian monastery at Bulayïq near Turfan.   Most of Psalms 94-99, 118, and 121-36 are contained in these fragments. The script is an early form of the cursive Pahlavi script (see Nyberg, Manual I, p. 129).
    • Theodoret, in the fifth century, mentions a translation of the Bible into the language of the Persians alongside with those of the Romans, Egyptians, Armenians, Scythians, and Sauromatians (Migne, Patrologia Graeca 83, Paris, 1859, cols. 947f.; quoted by Munk, p. 65 n. 2; Asmussen and Paper, p. 5). The existence of Iranian language translations of the Book of Esther in use among Jews is indicated by a question which is raised in the Talmud as to whether it is permissible to recite the text of the Book of Esther on the festival of Purim in one of the following languages: Greek, Coptic, Elamite, or Median (Bavli Megilla 18a).

William Hume raises the question of Manichaean literature, in an interesting if somewhat rambling post, and points out:

Speaking of Middle-Persian-Script languages: let us all constantly keep in mind that the Dun Huang & Turfan materials are not fully excavated, and what has been excavated has not been fully described, much less catalogued.  Those materials have yielded plenty of Manichaean materials.  I have an extremely vague recollection that there were even Nestorian materials found, in Iranian-branch languages like Khotanese Saka, and so on.

He also adds:

May I add, as a sort of “marginal” consideration, my understanding that there is a fair amount of Manichaean literature that survives in Middle Persian? … Prof. Ludwig KOENEN of University of Michigan published the Coptic “Life of Mani”, in which it was made clear that Mani grew up as an Elkasite Gnostic…

I confess that this is news to me, and rather interesting.  The Cologne Mani codex, here referenced, also has an article in the Encyclopedia Iranica here.  The Wikipedia article (unreliable, of course!) gives a 5th century date for the tiny codex, and mentions an English translation.  It also links to images of all the pages.  I have not been able to find an English translation online, however.

2 Responses to “More on Persian Christian literature”


  1. David Wilmshurst

    On the subject of lost Christian texts in Persian, the Nestorian metropolitan Hosea of Nisibis (fl. 495) composed a defence of Christianity in 38 chapters for presentation to the Persian king Kavadh I. This treatise was translated into Persian by the catholicus Acacius, who was presumably bilingual in Persian and Syriac. I think this is mentioned either in Mari or in the Chronicle of Seert.

  2. Roger Pearse

    Thank you for this! I also think of Paul the Persian, who has yet to be mentioned but certainly composed material in that language, as Severus Sebokht translated some of it into Syriac.